Saturday, April 21, 2018
Outdoors

Florida still loves its snook

ST. PETERSBURG — Ron Taylor was just a boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, but he remembers that first snook as if it were caught just yesterday.

"It was the biggest tussle … such a robust catch," recalled the 72-year-old marine biologist. "Over the years, the visions of snook in my brain, instead of fading, just became more brilliant.

"For many people, fishing for snook is not a sport," he said in a slow Alabama drawl. "It is a religion."

Taylor, a fixture at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's research lab in St. Petersburg, has been studying the state's most prized sportfish since 1982. Every year about this time, with snook season set to reopen Sept. 1, he fields questions from anglers.

For decades, Taylor has been something of a rock star to the state's fishing guides and hardcore anglers. Next week, "R.T.," as he called by colleagues and friends, will be honored as the world's most preeminent researcher on snook when American Fisheries Society honors him at its annual conference in Quebec City, Canada.

"I'm just a country boy, straight out of the briar patch," said Taylor, who downplayed the honor. "I've spent a lot of time studying snook and I can tell you we still have a lot to learn."

The William E. Ricker Resource Conservation Award is given to an individual or organization for long-term contributions that "advance aquatic resource conservation at a national or international level."

During the past 40 years, Taylor has travelled throughout Florida and the Caribbean, as well as to Mexico, Costa Rica and Australia for his research. He has focused primarily on snook, and has also studied king mackerel, red drum, spotted sea trout and swordfish.

"I've always gotten a lot of questions about snook," Taylor said. "It stirs people's passions like no other species."

But he added, "Sometimes, I think we're loving them to death."

The state's snook populations seem to run in cycles, he said. Numbers increase, then drop after a natural phenomenon like a killer freeze or red tide.

"Then it takes about four years for them to bounce back and get back to healthy numbers," he explained.

When Taylor started studying snook, most researchers believed the species could reach an age of about 7 years. "We've now found that they can live three times that long," he said.

All snook start out at as males then 90 percent switch sexes and turn into females. The big fish — the trophy catches — are always the breeders. "That is why it is always a good idea to practice catch-and-release," he said.

But perhaps the most interesting thing that Taylor has discovered in more than three decades of snook research is that the state's top saltwater fish is actually a freshwater fish.

"We've been thinking about it all wrong," he said. "Snook could actually spend most of their lives in the rivers and creeks and only go to saltwater to spawn."

Recent tagging data has revealed that most snook spend less than two months out of the year in saltwater.

Taylor's contributions to science have been particularly valuable here in Florida. According to the FWC, in 2004, the last year statistics were available, Florida anglers made 1.8 million snook trips, pumping about $620 million into the economy.

In recent years, however, the species has suffered severe setbacks. A series of cold fronts in January 2010 killed tens of thousands of warm-water-loving snook on both coasts. It was one of Florida's worst fish kills in decades, prompting state officials to shut down the snook fishery.

In general, Florida's management of snook is widely considered a conservation success story. One reason is because over the years, anglers have released more and more snook, even when the season is open to harvest.

The species is also particularly hardy. Studies by Taylor and other biologists show that 98 percent of snook, a higher percentage than red drum or spotted seatrout, survive upon release.

"I am optimistic," said Taylor, who has no plans to retire. "We're back to the levels of the mid '90s. In general, snook are better off than when I started looking at them and that's a good thing."

Comments

Captainís Corner: King mackerel the hot topic as gulf waters warm

King mackerel is always the hot topic this time of year, with tournaments every weekend for two months. Some believe that massive schools in the gulf migrate from their fall haunts in south Florida and the Keys to the north, with the larger females (...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Captainís Corner: Trout moving toward the beaches

Captainís Corner: Trout moving toward the beaches

After significant winds from a front last week, things are calming down and fish are turning on again. Bait has gotten predictable and easier to chum on the flats after moving to deeper water during the front. Iíve been targeting trout at first light...
Published: 04/18/18
Updated: 04/19/18

Captainís Corner: Rush of warmer water in gulf heats up fishing on offshore reefs, wrecks

The rush of warmer water on our offshore reefs and wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico has brought with it a cadre of pelagic fish. Divers and anglers have enjoyed the influx of cobia, kingfish and more. The benthic (bottom) fish are splurging on the balls ...
Published: 04/17/18
Updated: 04/18/18

Captainís Corner: Spring bite is solid despite wacky weather

Bipolar weather continues to confuse both fish and anglers. Fortunately the water temperature has gotten high enough that the effects donít last long and the spring bite continues to be solid. Snook are still the hot bite in many areas around the bay...
Published: 04/16/18
Updated: 04/17/18

Captainís Corner: Kingfish, sharks provide aerial displays

Fishing was good this past Saturday, ahead of the cold front. We fished close to shore about 2 miles. Our approach was simple. We anchored the boat, fished with live baits and chummed heavily. Kingfish action was nonstop for the entire morning. We ca...
Published: 04/16/18

Captainís Corner: Trolling or anchoring up, kingfish bite is hot

Are you looking for line-screaming action? Head offshore. The kingfish bite has been good, though high winds may require a wait for the water to clear. The best numbers have been about 5 miles out on the hard bottom. Trolling for kingfish works well;...
Published: 04/13/18
Updated: 04/15/18

Captainís Corner: Spring run is the most wonderful time of the year

The full spring run of all species in our area is in full swing. Whatever species you would like to target, inshore or offshore, is as good as it gets this time of year. Redfish schools have shown up in the flats around Pinellas Point, but they are i...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/13/18

Captainís Corner: Spanish mackerel, kingfish showing up in big numbers

They are here! Spanish mackerel and kingfish have shown up in the numbers expected of them at this time of year. All we have to hope for is weather that will allow us to get offshore. In most years the hot spots have been the artificial reefs, shipwr...
Published: 04/11/18
Updated: 04/12/18

Captainís Corner: Offshore fishing heats up in spring

Spring is here and things are heating up offshore. Kingfish have arrived from Tarpon Springs to Anna Maria. Spanish mackerel are around many of the bridges and piers, and cobia have appeared on the wrecks. Our most interesting discovery last week was...
Published: 04/10/18
Updated: 04/11/18

Captainís Corner: Trout, snook gathering around oyster bars

The recent full moon has finally sent the bait to the flats, although if you prefer the markers, theyíre still there, too. It seems we are finally in full-on spring mode. Trout have been sporadic at best, but when a group is located, they are coopera...
Published: 04/10/18